What to do when the difficult person is your boss

By Elisabeth Goodman, 19th December 2016


My Associates and I at RiverRhee have a module that we explore with managers on dealing with difficult situations.  It is also something that can crop up in our one-to-one coaching.  Our delegates often have examples of situations that they have encountered with colleagues that they would like help with how to address.  Those colleagues are often peers or direct reports, occasionally they are their own bosses.

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So it was with interest that I read Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries’ article in December’s Harvard Business Review, “Do you hate your boss?” (pp.98-100).  The article is based on his work as a researcher, management coach and psychoanalyst, and includes some illustrative case studies.

People leave their boss rather than their job

Kets de Vries started by quoting some statistics that confirm the common maxim that people leave their boss rather than their job.  He stated that 77% of people in a Gallup survey said that they were engaged with their work and had positive interactions with their manager. Only 23% of those who were not engaged with their work had the same degree of positivity.

“Is it me”? Consider your own behaviour first

It was good to read Kets de Vries echo some of our guidelines: to consider whether it might be your own behaviour, rather than your boss’s, that is contributing to the difficult situation. He suggested that you reflect on the feedback that your boss has given you about your work to see if addressing that might make a difference.  Asking colleagues about and observing positive ways in which they interact with your boss, and asking them for feedback on your own behaviour could also help.  Asking your boss directly for ways that you could be even more effective in your work is an additional option.

Empathy is a great aid for achieving mutual understanding and rapport

I liked Ket de Vries’s suggestion that you should use empathy to put yourself in your boss’s shoes.  This could help you to understand what pressures your boss might be under, and how this in turn may be affecting their behaviour towards you.  After all we are all subject to stresses and strains, and we can’t always put them to one side.  An open question during an informal occasion: travelling together, over dinner, etc. may provide just the opportunity to show interest in what your boss is currently dealing with and so pave the way for a more positive relationship.

Of course you could seek a more direct way to open the discussion about how the two of you are or are not getting on, but the situation may have become too difficult to do so.

Waiting for an opportune moment to have a non-confrontational ‘debrief’

So, if neither of the above non-confrontational routes work, then Ket de Vries suggests waiting for an opportunity where you have worked with your boss on a project, or with a client, and perhaps things have not gone to plan, may lend itself to an ‘after action review’ style discussion.  You could suggest that the two of you take some time together to reflect on what happened, and on what you could both have done differently.  Again, this can be handled in a non-confrontational way.

Last resorts..

Ket de Vries’s final two options are to either organise a formal protest to HR, with the support of your colleagues.  Be careful to have facts and data to support you! Or you could start looking for your next job.  The author suggests that waiting for things to get better is only recommended if you give yourself a timeframe for that, rather than waiting indefinitely.


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads on Membership, Communications and Events for the Enabling Change SIG committee.